Blair on Miliband's speech: "I’m not going to comment on the policy"

The former PM's silence is evidence of his scepticism.

While he hasn't gone as far as his old comrade-in-arms Peter Mandelson, who warned that Ed Miliband's energy price freeze risked taking Labour "backwards", Tony Blair has signalled his unease with Ed Miliband's policy agenda. He told Sky News:

I’m not really going to comment on Ed’s conference speech. It seemed to go down very well with people and was excellently delivered, I think. But I’m not going to comment on the policy.

He added:

He’s got the job of being leader of the opposition. I did that job for three years, I know how tough it is, I’m not going to get in his way.

Blair's explicit refusal to comment is strong evidence of his opposition to the policy. When he supports Miliband, as in the case of trade union reform, he says so

But with the exception of Blair, it is striking that not one Labour figure has echoed Mandelson's concerns, with many rebutting him (see Stephen Twigg's piece on The Staggers). Alastair Campbell, for instance, tweeted: "Peter M wrong re energy policy being shift to left. It is putting consumer first v anti competitive force. More New Deal than old Labour".

Elsewhere, Andrew Adonis has smartly noted that energy companies similarly threatened to withdraw investment when New Labour announced its windfall tax on them. He tweeted: "Labour's windfall tax 'will undermine our ability to invest, affect jobs and increase prices.' Yorkshire Electricity 1996 on Tony Blair" and "We may have to cut our investment programme if we face a windfall tax.' London Electricity 1996". 

And as the FT's economics editor Chris Giles points out, "Even though the Labour party cannot know how much utility bills would go up without the freeze, it is nevertheless saying that households would see a £120 benefit. If true, that is the equivalent of a £3bn tax on energy companies – which is smaller than the £5.2bn windfall tax the Blair government imposed on the utilities in 1997."

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.